Review: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen

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It was about time I had another classic in the bag and Northanger Abbey has been sat on my shelf since university – part of an extensive reading list that was never completed. I’ve read several of Austen’s novels before and I’m sure we are all familiar with the formula: husbandless female meets handsome rich male; complications ensue; yada yada yada; bish, bash, bosh; wedding bells.

I hope I won’t be revealing any big spoilers for anyone when I say this (look away now if you’d prefer not to know): they end up happily ever after. And yet…

I got genuinely riled up when the douchebag characters screwed things up for the heroine.

Having had a considerable break from Austen, I am now able to read her with fresh appreciation. She is truly a master of narrative prowess and impeccable characterisation. Yes, her works are filled with stereotypes and archetypes. But what is so enjoyable about her characters, is that they are as true to life now as then. I know people like the characters of Northanger Abbey in my life. I was particularly amused by the conversations shared by our heroine and her new best friend – a girl she’d barely known a day. Their chats bare all the marks of quickly made teenage friendships. The idioms of intimate conversation, the subtleties of social interaction are the same as they ever were.

“The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was as quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves.” – 26

But besides her characters, I quickly warmed to this novel because it is very aware of its own formula (i.e. girl meets boy and so on). Northanger Abbey was released posthumously, as was Persuasion, and as such, have a degree of maturity to them that I personally do not find in her earlier publications. By the time she was writing Northanger Abbey, she had established herself well enough to be able to play with her form. And while all her works feature a degree of social satire, it is twice heightened in Northanger Abbey by taking on another genre: gothic romance.

From the outset, Austen is doing her best to unseat the conventions of her genre. The opening pages are strongly advising us not to think of Catherine Morland as your classic heroine: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (1)

And besides an unfortunate appearance, “not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.” (1-2)

Of her mother: “She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” (1)

Making fun of the epistolary trope:

“Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenor of your life in Bath without one? … My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.” – (17)

And Austen herself has some things to say to her readers:

“I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, for whom she can expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk with threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” (26-7)

I think my dear Jane has said all that need be said on the matter. I shall simply add that I found Northanger Abbey a delightful read. Intelligent, self-critical and highly amusing.

 

Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Harper Press (Harper Collins Publishers Ltd)
ISBN: 9780007368600

Book Review: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

Autumn

by Ali Smith

I’ve been waiting a year to read a book like this. I only wish I’d read it three months ago, when the falling leaves outside could’ve matched those of this book. Or better still, a year ago, when this country made a historic decision that clearly weighed heavily on Ali Smith’s mind. Brexit prominently features in this novel. No matter what side of the vote you fell on, it cannot be denied that much social and political unrest persists in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

This novel is, predominantly about an unlikely friendship. Elisabeth is nine-years-old when they move house, and Daniel, an ageing bachelor, becomes their next-door neighbour. Both lonely, for their part, it doesn’t take long for a connection to be made and one that will continue for decades to come.

“The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” (52)

The characters are inherently imperfect and complex – as you would hope and expect from contemporary literature. We only see Elisabeth and Daniel in part, never whole. We know that Elisabeth’s father is out of the picture, but never why. We know that Daniel lost the people he loved, but never how. This, added to the fragmentary nature of the work, imbues the novel with authentic emotional experience. – While we hope that others feel as we do, you can never truly know. It is fearful hope that leads us to love, friendship and trust. It is through this fragility that Smith calls on us to be brave.

The style is distinctly contemporary – like its subject matter. It is lyrical, rhythmic and littered with truncated poetry. Perspectives shift with grace and empathy. There is a wonderful cohesion to this piece. Embracing everything in its withering foliage, autumnal metaphors and similes trace and echo effortlessly throughout the narrative. It is natural, melancholic and vibrant.

“The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.” (259)

Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. The colours and the sounds of leaves upon the ground. So, naturally (pun intended), I loved the imagery used throughout Autumn.

The dialogue reads like a script, and I could imagine the scenes playing out on a stage or screen. Humour makes a bold appearance too and I found myself smiling broadly on several occasions. The book, on the whole, moves at a fast pace, but comes to a dead stop, from time to time. The contrast is beautiful, matching the ebb and flow of the seasons, which is doubly echoed by the lives of the characters.

The “problem” of immigration is constantly referred to both directly and indirectly. Sexuality also goes uncategorised for all the main characters. In this way, Smith is representing minority voices, while eschewing the notion of labelling that often creates hostility and mistrust. In this respect too, Smith’s is a distinct and proud modern voice.

“Autumn” promises to be the first in a quartet of novels that speak directly to the now of UK society. The second novel, “Winter”, is now out in hardback, and I will most certainly be picking it up. It is both fascinating and delightful to read something that feels so impressively contemporary. And with “Autumn” shortlisted for the Man Booker 2017, we can only hope great things are in store for the rest of this collection.

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
ISBN: 9780241973318
Publisher: Penguin

Quicky Review: “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man’s Fear

By Patrick Rothfuss

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The Wise Man’s Fear is the second instalment of the Kingkiller Chronicles, following The Name of the Wind. I absolutely devoured The Name of the Wind last year and with the third novel still without a publication date, I wanted to savour what was available to me in the second novel. It is a sizeable tome and thanks to my Pudding/Vegetable reading pattern, I used a few vegetables to break up my reading and extend the pleasure of Rothfuss’ delicious storytelling.

As expected, the story does not disappoint. Full to the brim with exciting events and a fantasy world rich in detail. However, I must confess to not enjoying this book as much as the first. I found a fair amount of the sexual content – of which there is a lot – both jarring and ill-fitting. It felt heavily exaggerated and Kvothe’s use of superlatives became exhausting.

The character of Kvothe continues to be drawn out, his life experience so varied and eventful and insane … but … really? He wooed a wild sex fairy? There are times when I fell into scepticism, because even with the suspension of disbelief … come on, really? But, we are often reminded that Kvothe is a storyteller – prone to exaggerate and even wilfully misrepresent. After all, “You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

In spite of some misgivings, I still love the series. The intricacies of all the civilizations that Kvothe encounters, with their language systems and customs are brilliantly thought out and intruiging. Every new group we meet and learn about seems to be adding to a much, much bigger picture and I can’t help but feel that everything that happens is part of an arc whose landing point is unkown and terribly exciting.

We Rothfuss fans now await the third instalment – Doors of Stone – with waning patience. Hear’s hoping it won’t be long now!

Click here for my review of The Name of the Wind.

 

Book Review: “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

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The Music Shop

By Rachel Joyce

music shop

I’m a big fan of Rachel Joyce, since reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so as soon as I heard about The Music Shop, I had to read it immediately and it didn’t disappoint.

The Music Shop is about a man called Frank, who owns a record shop in the late 80s. Music is Frank’s way of interpreting and existing in the world and he has the extraordinary ability to listen. He understands the melody, the meaning, the emotion that a piece of music can contain – how it can elate, enrage or embrace you. And now, whenever a customer walks into the ordered chaos of his record shop, he will listen and he will find the song they need. It’s probably not what they came in asking for, but it’s what they need nevertheless. Frank will listen to you and hear the secret song inside you and make it real.

Then one day, a woman in a pea-green coat with eyes like vinyl faints outside Frank’s shop and changes everything.

Joyce has an extraordinary touch. She observes people minutely and exactly. But she does not pin down her characters with exactness. She is rather like a lepidopterist, who can gently cradle a passing butterfly in her hand. She examines carefully and with dedication. But only for a few seconds before releasing it once again. Hers is a gentle and respectful fascination with the human experience. She does not care for melodrama or action sequences. Joyce pays attention to the quiet existence of life that we can all relate to. Loneliness, grief, tender love and fierce friendship. And through it all, her words are warm and funny and generous.

“Jazz was about the spaces between notes. It was about what happened when you listened to the thing inside you. The gaps and the cracks. Because that was where life really happened; when you were brave enough to free fall.”
(p97)

Click here to see my review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

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Also see The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Review: “My Body vs Me” by Amy-Louise Taylor

My Body vs Me: Living with Chronic Illness

By Amy-Louise Taylor

my body vs me

It is difficult to be entirely honest. With loved ones, with strangers, with yourself. You must face up to the ugly parts of yourself before you can show them to others. Amy-Louise Taylor has taken the decision to be as honest as she can be in this little book, My Body Vs Me: Living with Chronic Illness.

Frank, honest, self-effacing, funny and brave – Amy is quite phenomenal, really. She has a host of not-so-nice conditions she must battle every day, with varying degrees of success. But she is doing an excellent job at getting on with life, with a smile on her face. She’s got a job she loves, she’s just published a book and she’s planning her wedding. In fact, it’s wrong to say she’s just getting on with life: she’s living it.

It is difficult to describe this book, not least because it discusses difficult things. It is a very personal book. It is very funny. But it is also sad.

I am lucky. Lucky because I get to live a normal life. I get to make mistakes and complain about things like a “normal” person. Amy is less lucky. She has a number of chronic illnesses that affect her everyday life. She can’t know each morning whether she’ll be able to leave the house. There are also days when she doesn’t want to leave the house. But Amy doesn’t complain, like a normal person would. Like I would. Of course, I’m sure, she has her moments when things get too much and who could blame her? But another person might allow themselves to be held down by the weight she bears. Amy finds joy and holds onto it, and you can only admire a person like that.

This book is a letter to family and friends; a thank you for their continued patience and compassion. But more than that, it is a message in a bottle for those who might be struggling.  Whether you are coping with a difficult condition or are close to someone who is, this little book just might be what you need.

From Amy, I pass on this message: “You can do this.”


Title: My Body vs Me
Author: Amy-Louise Taylor
ISBN: 9781521359686 (paperback)

Buy ebook here.

Review: “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy

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Hot Milk

By Deborah Levy

(Man Booker Shortlist 2016)

 

“’Sofia is a waitress, for the time being,’ my father said in Greek.
I am other things, too.
I have a first-class degree and a master’s.
I am pulsating with shifting sexualities.
I am sex on tanned legs in suede platform sandals.
I am urban and educated and currently godless.”

hot milk

25-year-old Sofia is an anthropologist working in an artisan café. Her mother Rose has been suffering with unidentifiable leg problems for many years, and Sofia has become her carer. Theirs is a tense relationship. Both Sofia and Rose have just arrived on the Spanish coast to see an expensive doctor.

In the Spanish sunshine, on a jellyfish infested beach, Sofia is stung in more ways than one. The novel is incredibly sensual: The tang of sweat on a body, the sting of a jellyfish on the skin. Desire is tangible; an excuse to be a wilful and a reason to surrender.

“The Kiss. We don’t talk about it but it’s there in the coconut ice cream we are making together. It’s there in the space between us as Ingrid scrapes the seeds from a vanilla pod with her penknife. It’s lurking in the long eyelids and the egg yolks and cream and it’s written in blue silken thread with the needle that is Ingrid’s mind.”

The language is mesmerizing. The imagery Levy uses is unusual and enigmatic, as are her characters.

Everyone we encounter is an enigma. As an anthropologist, Sofia cannot help but be fascinated by them. Her subtle observation of others demystifies and beatifies these people, while respecting that full understanding is not always possible or necessary. It is also in this way that Sofia reaches revelations of her own.

“Your boundaries are made from sand, Sofia”


Title: Hot Milk
Author: Deborah Levy
ISBN: 9780241968031
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Click to buy.

Book Review: “House of Names” by Colm Toibin

House of Names

By Colm Tόibίn

house of names

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley and Viking.

First things first: how do you say his name? I looked it up: CULL-um Toe-BEAN.

Tόibίn has been around for a good while and written several notable titles, including Man Booker Shortlisted titles and a film adaptation of Brooklyn in 2015. But I have yet to sample his work. Thankfully, I have now broken that trend, with his newest release: House of Names.

King Agamemnon makes a horrific choice: the day she was to be married, Agamemnon has his daughter sacrificed. It is brutal and shocking. It is the will of the Gods. It is only this act that will bring him favour in the Trojan War. Or so he believes. This brutal act leaves a legacy of grief and treachery for his wife, Clytemnestra and they’re surviving children, Orestes and Electra.

As a student and lover of the classics, I found it fascinating. House of Names is based on Greek myths that I am not particularly familiar with, so I don’t know how true it is to historical sources, but given Tόibίn’s calibre, I think we can safely assume that a fair amount of research went into it. Something I really appreciated and enjoyed while reading this novel, was the considered effort to create an ancient – and therefore timeless – narrative. The writing style reminded me of that which we find in existing ancient texts, such as Livy.

It is a style that shuns embellishment and uses very little description. Yes, landscapes have their dimensions and facets – be they open fields or cold stone prison cells. And yes, characters have their thoughts and actions – be they private and murderous or steadfast and brave. But Tόibίn finds more than that unnecessary. The result is an action driven narrative, governed by its restrained descriptive style. My imagination thrived on this starvation of description, and when I think back to some of the action scenes in the book, vivid images instantly appear inside my mind.

While this is a story driven by soul-consuming emotion, Tόibίn’s decision to heavily restrain his character’s voices compresses and represses these violent emotions, emulating the experience of his characters. Unfortunately, while I found the style overall to be effective, it was the restraint that prevented me from truly connecting with the characters. I felt removed from them. Therefore, even when a first person narrative was being used, I could only observe and not empathise with them.

Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Tόibίn; a decision made as part of his endeavour to recall this ancient myth of murder, betrayal and power.


Book Title: House of Names

Author: Colm Toibin

ISBN: 9780241257685 (HB)

Buy it here.


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Book Review: “The Cairo Pulse” by B.B. Kindred

The Cairo Pulse

by B.B. Kindred

I received a reading copy from NetGalley and Troubador Publishing Ltd in exchange for an honest review.

“Throughout recorded history there’d been both religions and individuals who believed that all human experience existed in a cosmic reservoir that could potentially be accessed; the Buddhists with their Akashic Records, Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious, Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance.”

I am fascinated by this concept.

Haven’t we all experienced those flashes of lucidity that arrive-depart with lightning speed and infinite grace? I know I have. Fleeting moments that put the world on pause for a few nanoseconds. Everything is still and perfect and knowable. There is something more, something open and natural. A whole galaxy floats before you with its beauty and magnitude. A sense of sublime perspective. And then it’s gone.

“Nothing was lost on me, not the pitching waves or rustling grass, the pine and salty air, the caramel sand that nuzzled my feet, the skin pleasing breeze, the mingling scents of my following companions. Everything was delicious and captivating, no ripples of dislocation or question. A head untenanted by thought and memory, filled with only knowing.”

What if we learnt to reach that state and harness its potential? What might become of us, then?

The earth emits electromagnetic energy. This is a scientific fact. Humans are conductors of electricity and our brains emit electromagnetic waves. These too are facts. It does not seem to me so entirely far-fetched that our brains might one day be able to harness that energy. That we will become attuned to the natural electromagnetism of this universe. What precisely would come from such an evolution is up for debate and B.B. Kindred’s characters are exploring just that.

This is not a new idea; many grasp at this same notion. Blockbuster films like The Matrix and Lucy grew from the same place as B.B. Kindred. Both films are really quite weird, objectively. (And their endings suck, subjectively.)

Often the problem with this kind of exploration is maintaining a coherent story while also successfully conveying a wildly abstract theory. This novel isn’t exactly a sci-fi, but that’s probably where you’d find it in a bookshop. (N.B. It’s currently only available as an eBook, so don’t actually go looking!) It reminds me of titles like Nod by Adrian Barnes and Eleanor by Jason Gurley – both of which I read last year and both of which defy easy genre classification. They are playing with huge ideas, possibilities and ways of thinking and being. It is easy for the ideas to take over the story. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s better to know that going in. In regards to The Cairo Pulse, it’s success as a story is mixed. The best moments in the novel are those that venture into cosmic experience and the comedown that follows. Wonderment hit down by normality, the flippancy and self-awareness of it all.

 “I woke feeling irritated by the sharpness of my thoughts”

Similar Titles:

Nod by Adrian Barnes

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Title: The Cairo Pulse

Author: B.B. Kindred

ISBN: 9781788031974

Only available as eBook.

Buy it here.

Book Review: “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Snyder

on tyranny

A short book deserves a short review.

Concise, punchy and imperative, this world of ours needs people who think, write and do as Timothy Snyder does. This book should be required reading for anyone who believes in democracy. But in particular, it is an urgent message for the young and apathetic voters of not just this country, but every country. Despite its focus on Trump’s America, this is a message for all. It is a call to action and a pointed reminder that oppression and tyranny is a cornerstone of our global history. We need not look far to find it. It is closer to us than we realise, ensconced in our “safe” democracy. Do not take choice for granted. Do not take your voice for granted. Do not take your right to vote for granted.

Register to vote now.


Title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Author: Timothy Snyder

ISBN: 9781847924889

Publisher: Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Buy it here.

Book Review: “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee

A Rising Man

by Abir Mukherjee

rising man

Calcutta, 1919. The rule of the British is starting to crumble. Dissenters both violent and peaceful are rallying but the Imperial Police Force and the Lieutenant-Governor are having none of it. Tighter restrictions are being placed upon the native Indians, the Bengalis are becoming “too smart for their own good” and political dissension is now fuelled with passion and education – a dangerous mix (p380). Captain Sam Wyndham, a veteran of the Great War has just arrived in the humid, febrile city, when a Burra Sahib is found with his throat cut. Believed to be the work of terrorists, Wyndham is put in charge of the investigation, but finds himself haplessly ignorant of the local customs. At the mercy of bureaucracy and corruption, Wyndham finds hypocrisy everywhere and before long, Wyndham finds himself being lead down the primrose path.

This is the first instalment of what Mukherjee hopes to be an enduring series, featuring Captain Wyndham and Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee. I received a proof of the second instalment (“A Necessary Evil”) and gave it away to a colleague before reading “A Rising Man”. I will now be hurrying said colleague to finish it so I can take it back and add it to my TBR pile! I will happily consume another of Mukherjee’s thrillers.

While I am not generally a big reader of crime/thrillers, I have recently developed a penchant for the historical variety (“Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor). This subgenre offers much in the way of world-building and is a delicious way to swallow nuggets of history. Mukherjee’s novel succeeds on both counts. The city is vibrant, smelly and sticky. And I mean that in a good way. The political landscape is a work in progress. With this first novel of the series, Mukherjee paints with a broad brush. Outlines of buildings, systems of government and caste are successfully scattered throughout the narrative in order to provide backdrop, but little detail is gone into. I hope very much the politics of Imperial India will develop as further publications are released.

The narrative itself moves with great pace and makes for an incredibly readable book.  The characters, again, are a work in progress. But, what is clear is that there is respect for the nuances of character-building and Mukherjee does not rush the process unnecessarily. Our Captain is not without flaws, and while I occasionally cringed at his somewhat outdated phrasing with respect to women in particular, I can certainly respect the efforts made to create a man and not simply a character.

All in all, a good solid beginning to a new historical series that I will happily continue to read.